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Posted in: Feminism

Published on Feb 17, 1998 by Connie Lauerman

Written for The Chicago Tribune

Passing a Torch


A lot of young women say they are in favor of equal pay for equal work, of keeping abortion legal and having their husbands help with the housework, but they won't use the term "feminist" to describe their point of view.

Why the reluctance to embrace that word?

"I think that when they say, 'I'm not a feminist but . . .' they mean, 'I want everyone to like me, I want to get a husband, I want to get the kind of job where the men who hire me won't be threatened by me, so I will not use the label,' " says Phyllis Chesler.

"I'm not convinced that young women and young men across the board are simply not feminists. Through a vast disinformation campaign, the label has come to be seen as no fun, very angry, definitely man-hating, definitely a lesbian who hates men or a whore from hell."

Chesler, a stalwart of the modern feminist movement, co-founder of one of the first women's studies programs in the country at the College of Staten Island in New York and author of the classic "Women and Madness" (Doubleday, 1972), says she senses a sort of shift in the center of gravity that's threatening the hard-won gains of the women's movement.

That possibility -- coupled with a scary six-year struggle with what her doctor diagnosed as "chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome" -- prompted Chesler, 57, to write "Letters to a Young Feminist" (Four Walls Eight Windows), a frank assessment of the past and a sometimes radical recipe for the future.

It's partly an attempt to lighten the burden of reinventing the wheel by passing on a legacy to young people who may not have a clue about what feminism really is and how it can help them.

"I thought, 'I could die in a minute, let me try to begin passing on some wisdom,' " says Chesler, who teaches psychology and women's studies at the College of Staten Island, part of New York's city college system.

Her students, who range from 18 to 55, usually have had little experience with feminist ideas, but she says that "when younger women and men are exposed to the visionary and radical ideas of feminism, their lives are transformed."

She gives as an example a young man who said that he never really talked to his mother. "He didn't think she had anything interesting to say and he just let her serve him, take care of him, and now he has begun to really talk to her and, more important, to listen to her. He wants to create a relationship."

Young women, she says, become "very confirmed in their discomfort around issues of needing to be thin and 'beautiful at all moments,' and they talk about their eating disorders and how they're wrestling with them not merely as an individual problem but in a political way.

"But if their mothers were battered or abandoned economically and are single mothers under extraordinary economic siege, they now say they begin to understand how hard it is and they're going to be more supportive."

The sisterhood ideal

Chesler says that one of the things her generation loudly proclaimed but failed to realize was "sisterhood."

"That's not a surprise because oppressed people tend not to stick together, tend not to respect or trust each other, even though there are exceptions," she says.

"Like brotherhood, sisterhood is an ideal. It's not a reality until you can wrestle it into being. You have to confront woman hatred within yourself. (In order to) love your sister as you love yourself, you have to love yourself a whole lot.

"So many women are so traumatized and disenfranchised that they're not able to do that. Therefore, they have the typical views of women that most women have: You can't trust them, they're sneaky and manipulative, they'll turn on you, they'll stab you in the back if you help them.

"Very often there's truth to every one of these stereotypes in a patriarchal workplace," Chesler says, but on the other hand, she notes that women have banded together in bringing class action law suits, "so now at least they understand that they're in a war and that they're attempting to fight for justice in that war."

Despite the number of women who have poured into the job market since the late 1960s, most workplaces have not become family friendly.

"Feminists of my generation didn't solve the serious problem of child care or a woman's right to choose to be a mother and then to have working conditions or family income that makes the job, so to speak, possible, instead of an advanced stress test," Chesler says.

Having women in high places may not have helped, Chesler says, because some women "are only used to working with men and (they) sabotage women. And there's an unwritten job description that says 'yes, we'll let you in the boys' club but you have to be one of the boys literally.' "

She also mentions "a part of feminism that doesn't speak for me," that views having children as the individual woman's problem, "as if somehow a feminist ideal involves never marrying, never becoming a mother. There's a certain male imitation, very hard of heart, not tender and merciful."

Chesler herself has been married twice and divorced twice. Her son's father, she says, "promised to be a feminist father (but) lied or changed his mind" and walked out. Her son, Ariel David Chesler, is her only child. He will write the introduction for her next book, a diary of motherhood.

Trouble with other women
When she began to write about motherhood, which she considers "our major human right of passage," Chesler says that she "ran into certain kinds of trouble from other women."

"I thought that I'd finally done an approved female activity," she says, "and everyone was going to like me. Well, I was wrong. Women who were forced to bring up children alone and sacrificed a great deal to do so said, 'Yeah, well, I did it. You can too.'

"On the other hand, those that are totally pro-motherhood didn't think I'd be running around the country and writing books and going right back to my career."

Chesler says she also parted ways with some feminists who thought that it was "a perfectly feminist thing to hire out your uterus for a small sum of money," and that if a surrogate mother changes her mind about giving up the baby, the way Mary Beth Whitehead did, it hurts the feminist cause.

Chesler organized demonstrations and wrote a book, "Sacred Bond: The Legacy of Baby M," partly prompted by Dr. Lee Salk's testimony on behalf of William and Elizabeth Stern, who hired Whitehead as a surrogate mother.

"(Salk) said, 'She's only a surrogate uterus, she's not a mother,' " Chesler says."I said, 'That's it, that's enough.' I thought that if she can't change her mind and refuse to surrender the child for adoption then no woman is safe.

"If they're coming against someone who is vulnerable due to class or lack of status or education, then does that say that the rich are entitled to the children of the poor? The Sterns were viewed by some feminists and the media as preferable because they were higher income and higher status."

When she embraces the causes of individual women, Chesler says that "it often won't be in cases of 'perfect enough' victims. Feminists will sometimes act when the woman is not a loose cannon, is properly ladylike, is thoroughly middle class and has suffered a long time."

For example, most feminists, she says, did not rally around Lorena Bobbitt, "because she was a mail-order bride who didn't speak English too well and wasn't a feminist hero from afar."

Violence-free zone

Chesler was active in the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s, but in a sense her social consciousness goes back to childhood. Growing up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn, she became a socialist Zionist during grammar school, "probably in rebellion," she says. "But I think even then I was understanding that if a group is persecuted or oppressed there is something to needing national sovereignty or land."

In "Letters," Chesler calls for a "feminist continent," a place where women would be free from violence. It's an idea she says grew out of a speech she made at an early feminist meeting, during a time when women in Bangladesh were being raped. "I thought they would kill themselves or their families would disown them or kill them, and I said that we needed to airlift them out of Bangladesh right now.

"Everybody sort of smiled and there was some applause, but they thought I was being poetic, that it was merely a metaphor."

Chesler allows that it may have been a metaphor but she also was serious. She says she included the concept in her new book because she's "trying to expand our imaginations, trying to help us think really big."

She's seems hopeful about the future, saying that when young women talk to her about the ideas in "Letters" at bookstore appearances, "a look of relief actually crosses their faces. They don't feel as isolated and/or as crazy as they were feeling.

"It's harder for them to say that they're feminists or to begin leading a life infused with feminist consciousness than it was for my generation. It takes more courage right now because there's no opening in history. Yet."


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